In volume six of P.I. Pulse’s recurring column, “The 5-Point Play,” basketball analyst Henry Ward is joined by fellow amateur basketball aficionado P.D. Web for something a little bit different. This week, Henry and P.D. will go back and forth to create a dialogue about some draft prospects that have been on their mind recently, from Jaden Springer and where he fits in amongst the class’s elite to Brandon Boston, Jr. and what this rocky year means for him in the long term.
Here’s what has us thinking, lately:
Henry Ward: Glad we could come together and get a little back and forth going, P.D.. I wanted to start off by talking about Brandon Boston, Jr., and specifically, his struggles with contact this year. How do you see those problems being righted in the future?
P.D. Web: I think the biggest challenge with evaluating Boston is the admission that he isn’t the prospect that was forecasted preseason, and by releasing ourselves from our priors, we can admit the obvious — Boston played poorly within a role he was miscast into at Kentucky. Boston has great creation traits (the shake, the space creation, the shooting OTD) in a vacuum, but the application has been poor because even college guards can prevent Boston from getting into situations to make those skills useful. Shake isn’t useful when teams know they can climb into a handle and bump Boston off his spots. Shooting off the dribble and space creation are both shooting dependent, and more than the shooting coming and going — the issue is that teams know they can funnel Boston into contact knowing he will struggle to finish through. That knowledge, combined with Boston’s best moves being snatches and pull-backs, has made his general shot diet tougher — hard 3s, hard self-creation, hard finishes through contact. Boston ranks in the 26th percentile of shots off the dribble, at .63 PPP, per Synergy. Boston’s finishing around the cup wasn’t much better, .84 PPP, 14th percentile. To me, the degree of difficulty on his average shot suggests a player given too much burden that he was not physically prepared for, and also not shooting as well as forecast.
As strange as it may seem, these struggles may be best for Boston long term. Boston will not be a primary expected to make reads breaking down a set defense. In his NBA role, he will be placed in a young Caris LeVert-style role: asked to create on a second side actions versus a bent defense, against secondary/tertiary wing defenders. Not being a primary comes with some long term benefits: Boston can slowly add weight and strength while he dials in his jumper, he will be asked to make easier reads and have much less of his usage depend on being an offensive engine. Teams drafting Boston will need a plan to solve the valgus collapse, to add core stability and posterior chain strength. It is easier to develop these attributes in a young player in a simplified role of C&S and closeout creation with the occasional PNR possession than it is to work on his physical deficiencies while also adjusting to being the main focus of an offense. But developing flexibility and explosiveness for skinny wings has been a historical strength of the league for the last decade — players like Brandon Ingram, Cam Reddish and Paul George all made major strides in these areas once introduced to an NBA strength and condition program. While Boston’s year has gone sideways, I feel more comfortable with his long term projection knowing a team in the 20s will slow-play his development, versus a world where Boston was the same player shooting 40% from 3 at UK and then being fed major creation minutes as a rookie.
HW: This is a very interesting case, one that reminds me a bit of Tyrese Haliburton, where a player’s draft slot seems to be a relatively sole determinant of their usage pathway. What I mean by this is that Boston will likely benefit from a fall in the draft in the same way Haliburton has so far, mostly because the level of expectations on immediate returns and subsequent development plan provide much more favor to long term success the further they slide. While Haliburton’s slip seemed to be more so his camp’s own doing, it has clearly paid tremendous returns already — slotting him alongside De’Aaron Fox and Harrison Barnes, who’re each having their own personal playmaking renaissances, has allowed him to fully assimilate in the sort of hyper-connector archetype he was best-suited for all along. While Boston is a much different player, being able to slide into a situation with lower demands will let him right some of the biomechanical issues you mentioned, as well as afford him a bit longer of a timeline to do so.
One thing that confuses me within the discourse around Boston is the lengths to which people are willing to go in response to his negative year. If you watched him at Sierra or with AOT, I think the struggles you’re seeing now aren’t all that dumbfounding. Sure, the degree to which they’ve affected his output are disappointing, but it’s not like they’re new problems he’s facing. As you said, P.D., the issues are logical, specifically in terms of how easy it is to jam him at the point of attack and how much that mitigates him offensively. So, with that understanding, and with the greater context (pandemic year with an uncharacteristically bad Kentucky season) at play, I don’t see how one could rule him out as a lottery or mid-first round talent if there was excitement during the preseason. In many ways, this bogey of a season could end up being beneficial down the line, and I’m not willing to buy the idea of him falling into the 20’s because of it.
P.D.: Jaden Springer plays a small role at Tennessee, but his ceiling is that of a high usage guard — how have you analyzed that, and what can he show you between now and the draft that’d help that evaluation?
HW: Springer is a classic example of why there’s always an element of imagination required in the draft process, specifically in regards to projecting roles. At Tennessee, we’ve gotten the most toned-down version of the player he can be, considering what he’s done at IMG and on the UAA circuit, but have still seen the abilities that make him so exciting shine through here and there. While he’s not operating pick-and-rolls with any worthwhile frequency or driving offense by himself, Springer has been able to create advantages in the flow of the offense to the point where we’ve seen what the finished product could look like down the road. When he’s gotten more aggressive in certain possessions, the crafty dribbling, brute strength, powerful movement style and layered passing reads have all come to the forefront — something that bodes well for who he can be in the NBA.
One thing I would push back on slightly is the idea of him being a high-usage guard at any point, but I want to also make clear that this isn’t a knock on him at all. In many ways, I actually view it as a positive, and cite the same reasons for doubt behind him filling that role as proponents for why he’ll be successful at the next level. Springer has shown us how heady he can be and how capable he is of measuring his approach to pick his spots as an advantage creator, something that’s somewhat of an underrated skill in my view. We’re used to seeing college guards who go in the upper half of the lottery absorb massive usage loads throughout their careers, and are then forced to hope that they can either continue to do so effectively, or learn a different way to play. With Springer, the clay hasn’t yet been molded, let alone fired, in the same way. I think it’s fair to say that he’s a bit more talented than his level of usage would lead one to assume, but with how proactive he is as a defender, ball-mover, and passer in general, I think it’s safe to say he fits in anywhere that could use a versatile off-guard who can punish tilted defenses and be a defensive menace in every sense. And, the list of those destinations is pretty long.
P.D.: There is imagination and then there is the imagination required to get to Jaden Springer NBA Primary After Watching Tennessee Jaden Springer. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past few years is that Isolation creation ≠ all usage modes. It’s entirely possible to build a secondary usage profile out of second side creation, cuts, guard postups and C&S. How much “loose change” offensive usage Springer can gather comes down to improvement and utilization with an NBA system. Those half-space skills are going to be more valuable on a well-spaced NBA floor. A player who is good at basically everything non-primary related offensively, a defensive menace AND has a bet to self-create jumpers is suddenly one of the highest upside plays in the class.
I don’t think that it is likely that Springer will get to, say, Trae Young usage — but there are outcomes where Springer can get to a secondary usage with high level situational creation. At a certain point, Springer is so good at the ancillary scoring pathways that it adds to a real creation value. By deploying Springer in motion, where he can access his diverse usage and push him away from his weaknesses — like, self-created jumpers or forcing up shots in the medium-short range (10th percentile per Synergy within 17 feet). Evaluating Springer at a top lotto spot requires a trust that NBA orgs can develop the best of Springer without forcing him out of his comfort zone or his archetype. He really loves the Villanova post up when drives don’t create finishing angles — and man, that does not generate efficient jumpers. In the league, there will be better angles and much less cramped spacing, meaning some of these fading middys will be rim attempts. Notably, Springer is much much better at the rim, 70% on 60 attempts, rescuing his efficiency somewhat.